The Norman Transcript

October 19, 2011

Evidence course influential to law students and NPD

By James S. Tyree
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Third-year law students at the University of Oklahoma are getting a practical experience in professor Mary Sue Backus’ new evidence lab class.

So are Norman police officers.

The officers join students at an OU courtroom to practice direct and cross examination in a mock trial setting.

“What is unique is the partnership between Norman police and the law scholars,” Backus said. “Students are learning how to use the rules of evidence in court and the officers are getting practice to answer questions in the courtroom.”

Alison Wilson, one of the defense attorneys Tuesday, said she and fellow classmates take turns acting as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys while the police officers answer questions from the witness stand.

Officer Carl Pendleton participated Tuesday in a “trial” for a woman charged with driving under the influence.

“You’re an awful witness for the defense,” Backus said to Pendleton, as a compliment, because of his tendency to provide additional details from his persepective.

“These guys,” Backus continued in reference to the defense attorneys, “will have to ask better leading questions.”

The professor also had suggestions for the prosecutors. Delving further into Pendleton’s credentials and leading him on step-by-step explanations of the sobriety tests he “administered,” for instance, would have made him an even stronger witness.

Backus praised Pendleton because he came across as knowledgeable, but she had pointers for him, too, such as slowing down a bit when explaining procedures, even walking juries through those steps.

Students in the audience, those playing roles and even Pendleton and Lt. David Teuscher, who watched the proceedings, also commented on various aspects of the questioning.

Teuscher said the exercise is great for officers because they rarely get chances to testify in court and they should feel comfortable when doing so. Teuscher has testified in only six cases, from traffic violations to homicide, in his 14 years on the force.

“The response has been extremely positive, surprisingly so,” Teuscher said. “I’ve had officers with 14, 15 years experience do this once and they’ll say, ‘I want to do this again.’ It’s informative and they’ve learned a lot from it.”

Clayton Cotton, a third-year student who lives in Oklahoma City, said the experience provided in the lab is unlike anything he’s had in previous classes.

“We hardly get a chance to question real professionals,” he said. “The most difficult part is the real-life situations we handle here are a lot stickier than what you get in textbooks. But the practice is invaluable.”

James S. Tyree 366-3541 jtyree@normantranscript.com